Sunday, January 17, 2021

MLB Is Staying Away From Those Sweet Expansion $$$ (For Now)

We've been hearing a lot about the possibility of expansion in Major League Baseball for several years. There haven't been any new teams brought into the fold since the Diamondbacks and  Rays came aboard at the end of the last century. Ron Manfred, the empty suit who currently holds down the job of MLB commissioner, has been on the record for years that he wants to add a couple of teams. Among other reasons, going to 32 teams would allow each league to divide into four divisions of 4 teams, which would cut down some on travel and also add another couple of division races. There is also the thought that the hefty franchise fees, expected to be around $1 billion per team, could offset some of the losses the clubs are claiming from the covid pandemic.

I'm somewhat surprised there hasn't been more of a push for expansion, given some of the incredibly short-sighted ways teams are cutting expenditures that add up to way less than a 1/30 share of a couple of billion bucks. Ken Rosenthal had a piece in The Athletic explaining why MLB is resisting the lure of an expansion windfall right now. Rosenthal quotes Manfred from an interview the commissioner gave back last September on his expectations for expansion:

"My sense is that the COVID experience has probably slowed the expansion process down," Manfred said in a virtual event conducted by Hofstra's Frank G. Zarb School of Business in September. "We haven’t even formally begun a process. I think it's probably a little further away now as a result of the events of 2020."

Rosenthal cites a number of reasons for the reluctance of the current owners to get on board with expansion, all of which are interesting, but the key reason would be reluctance on the part of current owners to divide the national television money pie into an extra two slices. Basically, the one-time windfall from the franchise fees would be eaten away over time by sharing central revenues with the new teams. There was resistance from some of the owners before the pandemic started, and the financial pressures of the past year has only stiffened that. To be clear, there was never anything like the amount of central revenue available when MLB expanded previously as there is today, thanks to national tv money and streaming revenues.

Of course, there are other reasons for a reluctance to expand. There is uncertainty in both Tampa Bay and Oakland about getting new stadiums built which might alleviate those teams' chronic attendance problems. The places that get talked about the most are Nashville, Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Montreal. Mexico City is another location often mentioned, but that's probably further down the road. All of these other cities are seen as options for the A's and Rays if they don't get new parks in their current locations, with Montreal often cited as a possibility for Tampa Bay to either move to outright or split their home games with.

There is also the likelihood of another, even more damaging standoff between MLB and the Players Association than we saw this past spring when the two sides attempt to negotiate a new agreement after this season. That's probably not the ideal time to add a couple of new teams and new owners to the mix. I get a pit in my stomach every time I try to imagine the two sides coming to an agreement without a hugely damaging work stoppage. Given the wounds that MLB clubs are claiming were inflicted by the pandemic, it would be nice to think that both sides would realize that it's in their own best interest not to have another, even bigger public fight. Given what we saw this year, however, I'm betting on more ugliness.

Getting back to expansion, one thing that interests me is the size of the markets being discussed. A couple of weeks ago I cited a piece on about market size. Of those cities mentioned above, only Montreal is a market of over 3 million people, but a good portion of those could care less about baseball. Portland, Oregon was in the 2-3 million market. Las Vegas wasn't on Baseball Almanac's list, but their metro area is over 2 million, also. Charlotte and Nashville are in smaller markets of 1-2 million, similar to the markets of Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Kansas City. Putting teams into any of these places doesn't seem like a way to bring many new fans into the sport, if that was a consideration in favor of expansion.

If expansion does go through, and it likely will someday, that idea of 8 divisions of 4 teams each doesn't thrill me. With 6 divisions in baseball, we've seen some pretty large disparity between the competitiveness of some divisions. I imagine that will increase that dynamic as divisions get further diluted. One idea that I really don't like is to do away with the two leagues and mix and match teams in those 8 divisions. I know the distinction between the two leagues has been significantly watered down through increased interleague play, eliminating league offices, and managing umpiring centrally. The biggest difference between the leagues, the DH, is likelier than not to be universal going forward.

For all that, I still love the idea of a separate National League and American League. For as much as the game has evolved, MLB should, when possible, acknowledge the long history and tradition of the sport of baseball. Even the NFL has kept the distinction between the AFC and NFC as a nod to its own history. I hope baseball doesn't elect to go to a single super league. It's still fun to argue which league is "better".

Even if MLB doesn't go that route, the four divisions combined with interleague play seem likely to unbalance the schedule further, conveying a significant advantage on some teams as far as the strength of the schedule they play. This will obviously affect the wildcard winner(s), but it's also likely to lead to one or two really undeserving division winners, too. There's no point whining about it, the fairness of schedule ship sailed out of port a long, long time ago.

As for the Mets, whether expansion leads to a single league or just divides up the existing leagues into an extra division, by the virtue of their geographic location our team is likely to wind up in a really tough competitive division with other large market clubs. That might suck from time to time, as they might find themselves missing the playoffs in years when weaker teams in other divisions make the postseason. I'll live with that, because I still think being pushed hard by other clubs in your division forces a good team to get better, with at least some increased likelihood of going deeper into the postseason.

This will be interesting to watch going forward. If MLB survives the next collective bargaining session without too many self-inflicted wounds, expansion talk will probably start heating up again.

That will do it for today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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